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Tom Wolfe, perpetually dressed in a white suit that was as much his trademark as his onomatopoeia-laden, eccentrically punctuated prose, was one of the most influential and instantly recognizable American writers of the twentieth century. In articles for Esquire, New York magazine, and Rolling Stone, Wolfe pioneered a style of "New Journalism" that embraced a novelistic approach, immersing the writer in the world of the subject to recreate scenes with intimate detail. Wolfe's piquant observations of American culture were collected in a series of best-selling books, including That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his account of Ken Kesey's counter-culture odyssey. Wolfe mastered long-form nonfiction with 1979's, The Right Stuff, which became an acclaimed 1983 film about the Mercury Space Program starring Ed Harris, and then turned New Journalism on its head by applying his research-oriented approach to fiction with his 1987 smash hit,The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was adapted into an infamous 1990 film flop starring Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith. Wolfe's cultural criticism eventually alienated him from the literary community when he pronounced...
Tom Wolfe, perpetually dressed in a white suit that was as much his trademark as his onomatopoeia-laden, eccentrically punctuated prose, was one of the most influential and instantly recognizable American writers of the twentieth century. In articles for Esquire, New York magazine, and Rolling Stone, Wolfe pioneered a style of "New Journalism" that embraced a novelistic approach, immersing the writer in the world of the subject to recreate scenes with intimate detail. Wolfe's piquant observations of American culture were collected in a series of best-selling books, including That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his account of Ken Kesey's counter-culture odyssey. Wolfe mastered long-form nonfiction with 1979's, The Right Stuff, which became an acclaimed 1983 film about the Mercury Space Program starring Ed Harris, and then turned New Journalism on its head by applying his research-oriented approach to fiction with his 1987 smash hit,The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was adapted into an infamous 1990 film flop starring Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith. Wolfe's cultural criticism eventually alienated him from the literary community when he pronounced that, with the exception of works of New Journalism, the novel was a doomed art form. His later books, 2008's I Am Charlotte Simmons and 2012's Back to Blood received lukewarm responses, but by then, with his carefully cultivated image and his strenuously unconventional writing style, Tom Wolfe had defined our self-obsessed culture and reinvented both journalism and the novel in the process.
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr. was born March 2, 1931 in Richmond, VA, the son of Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Sr., an agronomist, and his wife, Louise, a landscape designer. Wolfe showed early talent as an athlete, playing baseball for Washington and Lee University, and pitching semi-professionally even before his graduation in 1951. The following year, Wolfe earned a tryout with the New York Giants, but was cut after three days. Putting aside his professional sports aspirations, Wolfe enrolled at Yale University, where he earned his Ph.D. in American Studies in 1957, while working as a general assignment reporter for the Springfield Union newspaper. In 1959, Wolfe found work at The Washington Post. He would later claim to have secured the position because he was uninterested in politics and would not compete with other staff reporters for the prized Capitol Hill beat. Wolfe spent six months as The Post's Latin American correspondent, and in 1960 earned a Washington Newspaper Guild award for his coverage of the Cuban revolution.
In 1962, Wolfe began reporting for the New York Herald-Tribune where editors encouraged experimentation and defiance of writing conventions. Wolfe produced a series of articles for Esquire and New York magazine that eschewed traditional journalistic distance for first-person accounts presented with novelistic recreations of events. As Wolfe's writing style evolved, so did his public image with the adoption of what would become his trademark: a finely tailored white suit. Wolfe bought his first white suit upon arriving in New York in the summer of 1962, hoping to look like a Southern gentleman, but the suit was too heavy for summer wear. When he wore the suit that winter, he caused a stir in fashion-conscious Manhattan. The suit remained the image of Wolfe's personal brand from that point on, but Wolfe also claimed that the suit served a purpose, disarming those he interviewed by making him seem "like a man from Mars, a man who knows nothing but is eager to know."
In the winter of 1962, Wolfe approached Esquire magazine about writing an article on California's hot rod culture. Esquire was interested, but Wolfe was unable to achieve the style he envisioned. After months of revisions, his editor suggested that he at least submit his notes. Wolfe demurred until the night before the article was due and then hammered out a letter to the editor explaining, in a personal and non-journalistic way, what he genuinely felt about the subject. Dobell simply removed the opening "Dear Byron" and published the letter as it was. Much like Wolfe's out-of-season white suit, the article, entitled "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)." made an impression for its utter dismissal of journalistic tropes, winning admirers and detractors in equal numbers. In 1965, it would become the centerpiece of Wolfe's first book, That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, which also included his 1964 Esquire article, "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!"
Wolfe rose to prominence at the forefront of a movement he called "New Journalism," which included such notables as Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Truman Capote, among others. Like Wolfe, this emerging generation of writers combined detailed reporting with an intimate narrative voice. They also moved beyond simple interviews, shadowing and observing their subjects for extended periods of time in an attempt to portray them in a more complete and truthful manner. In 1968, Wolfe's The Pumphouse Gang, another collection of his articles and essays, was published on the same day as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which Wolfe traveled as an embedded reporter on a LSD-fueled road trip with counter-culture figure Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Like his first book, his second and third were bestsellers. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, along with Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Capote's In Cold Blood would become the defining works of New Journalism.
His 1970s offering Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers infused Wolfe's usual cultural criticism with racial politics, including a wryly comical account of Leonard Bernstein throwing a party for the radical Black Panthers at his Park Avenue apartment, and a scathing indictment of the welfare system. While this fourth book did not perform as well as its predecessors, it did little to slow Wolfe's rise in prominence. His essay on stock car champion Junior Johnson was adapted into a feature film starring Jeff Bridges, "The Last American Hero" (1973), and he edited and published The New Journalism, a collection of articles from his fellows in the New Journalism movement. Neither the film nor the book was a notable success. His next book, The Painted Word, was a damning vision of the contemporary art world as a self-consuming "art village." It's publication in 1975 put Wolfe out of favor with much of Manhattan's cognoscenti.
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, published in 1976, included some of Wolfe's first fiction in short story form, and expanded Wolfe's jaundiced view of culture from the art world to the country at large with the essay, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening," an observation of Americans' obsession with self. Wolfe, who had often illustrated his writing with cartoons and sketches, began an illustrated feature for Harper's magazine the following year entitled "In Our Time," and managed to keep up his monthly output of articles and artwork despite also working on what he considered to be his magnum opus, his 1979 best seller, The Right Stuff. The book, which chronicled the potent combination of machismo and heroism that defined the Mercury space program, won the American Book award for non-fiction, and the Columbia Journalism Award. Wolfe followed up with In Our Time, a collection of the articles and illustrations originally published in Harper's Magazine, published in 1980.
Like his criticism of the art world in The Painted Word, Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, published in 1981, examined modern architecture and leveled the charge that architects had overthrown form and function in favor of theory. The book drew fire for condemning the demi-monde of architecture as insular and elitist. In the midst of the criticism, Wolfe retreated to focus on writing his first novel. Comfortable with non-fiction, Wolfe threw himself into research, but struggled when he came to the story's fictional elements. A welcome distraction came in 1983 with the feature film "The Right Stuff," starring Ed Harris, Scott Glenn and Sam Shepard, adapted from his 1979 bestseller. The film was a hit and won four Academy awards, drawing more attention to Wolfe than ever before. He was still, however, suffering from writer's block. To overcome it, Wolfe took a page from one of his favorite authors, Charles Dickens. He made a proposition to Rolling Stone magazine that they publish his novel, like Dickens' work, in a series of installments.
From July 1984 to August 1985Rolling Stone published a new installment of The Bonfire of the Vanities in each bi-weekly issue. As Wolfe had anticipated, the regular deadlines motivated him to finish the story, but he was unhappy with his results. By the time The Bonfire of the Vanities appeared in book form in 1987, it had been thoroughly rewritten. The novel, which captured the essence of 1980s New York in the downfall of stock trader Sherman McCoy, was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for three months. At the top of his form, Wolfe once again courted outrage, this time in the literary community. In an essay for Harper's magazine, "Stalking the Billion-footed Beast," he argued that his journalistic approach was the only hope for the future of the novel. Though The Bonfire of the Vanities was considered a definitive novel of the 1980s, the 1990 film adaptation starring Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis was a notorious flop.
In 1996, Wolfe wrote another story for Rolling Stone, "Ambush at Fort Bragg," an account of a television news show's attempt to entrap three soldiers into confessing to the murder of a comrade. The story had originally been one storyline in a larger work, A Man in Full, which was published separately in 1998. Once again, Wolfe headed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. He appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, and in the accompanying interview, Wolfe reignited the ire of the literary community by again stating that his approach to the novel was the only hope for the form. Novelists John Updike, John Irving, and Norman Mailer all joined the ensuing fray, writing excoriating reviews of A Man in Full. Their words appeared to have no impact on Wolfe, who continued to challenge himself with new endeavors, including co-writing the script for Christopher Guest's comedy "Almost Heroes" (1998) starring Matthew Perry and Chris Farley, and publishing another collection of short fiction and articles, Hooking Up, in 2000. In 2001, Wolfe responded to his detractors with an essay calling the writers "my three stooges."
It would be three years before Wolfe returned to the novel form with 2004's I Am Charlotte Simmons, a critique of college life as little more than a quest for sexual and social status. Though Wolfe approached the book with his usual well-researched attention to detail and outsized style, critical response was lukewarm. Wolfe continued to write magazine articles, but in 2008 he announced that he was leaving his longtime book publisher, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, even as he was conceiving his next novel. Back to Blood, Wolfe's fourth novel, was published in October 2012 by Little, Brown, and explored the theme of racial heritage and the homogenizing influence of becoming a "naturalized" American. Like I Am Charlotte Simmons, the book was met with less than stellar reviews.by John Crye
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